Waiting for the adults to take charge

Posted by Steve Sweeney
on Friday, April 20, 2018

Railroad bridges of St. Louis, 2014. Railroads maintain their infrastructure, why aren't the rest of us? Photo by S. Sweeney

Mississippi announced recently that it will close 100 bridges to automobile traffic until further notice because of structural deficiencies. 

As I began composing this blog post (3:39 p.m. Central Time April 12), the New York Times had yet to post a story on this. CNN was too busy with wall-to-wall coverage of President Donald Trump controversies and so hadn't posted a story either. The Wall Street Journal story, however, went up hours earlier and summarizes a heartburning situation: Dozens of communities forced to do without bridges that until now were carrying people and goods over culverts, rivers, and railroad lines. 

I edit stories at Trains so you know which of the several national news stories piqued my interest most. The lack of any sustained national outcry on Mississippi's bridges (oh, and don't forget Florida) is merely the latest in a long-demonstrated lack of maturity in our country. Peggy Noonan's recent column for the Journal rolls up this idea for me nicely. Applied to roads and bridges, passenger trains, and trolleys: If today's adults are unable to agree to build or maintain infrastructure in the public interest, then who will?

If you guessed, "No one," you are as cynical as I am.

A second great example of the past few months involves New York City-area politicians who spar with Trump over who will pay for the billions of dollars in repairs and upgrades needed to get another train tunnel under the Hudson River for the Northeast Corridor. It's widely known as the Gateway Project, and while most observers agree something should be done, no one with the power to do so has done a darned thing to move it forward.

The lack of activity prompted the Roman Catholic order of Jesuit priests in the U.S. to write about the Gateway Project as a matter of social concern, right after — wait for it — a memorial to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a discussion on the travails of Syria's civil war.

In 2016, Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton advocated for Federal spending in the hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars or more on infrastructure. And that was on top of the "shovel ready" projects we were supposed to have funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Nearly 10 years on from the Great Recession, ARRA, and the elections of 2016, it's plain that we've frittered away time while the bare essentials we are responsible for continue crumbling. Besides roads and bridges we drive on, commuter rail service in most cities remains a hand-to-mouth funding proposition, Amtrak may finally (but not certainly) get coaches and locomotives that it has needed for years, while light rail lines that make a lot of sense to connect poorer communities with jobs or that promise to reduce automobile pollution and parking problems just get politicized to death. My grandparents' and great-grandparents' generations were better than this.

"More than ever, the adults have to rise to the fore and set the template for what is admirable," Noonan wrote. "If we don’t, those who follow us will be less admirable even than us, and those after them less admirable still."

I can't say it better, but I can't say it will happen, either.

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